Art. VI. Reproduction Clothing— Men's Pants, by J. Gottfred.
In which the basic styles and types are described.
It seems that one topic likely to provoke lively debate amongst re-enactors is the question of what kind of pants men wore from about 1790 to 1815.
There is considerable confusion on this matter for two reasons. First, the general style of clothing changed dramatically after the French revolution, so that by around 1800 the 'colonial' look was gone. Secondly, fashion was a function of social standing, one's occupation, and whether or not it was Sunday. This means that many styles co-existed, and choosing the one that is correct for your character becomes more of a challenge.
In this article I will present the information that I have been able to dig up on the subject of men's pants, and give some advice on how to go about constructing a pair for re-enactment use. There is no doubt that pants are the most challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating garments to recreate.
Leg Length & Types of Pants
Breeches are pants that button or buckle either just above, or just below the knee. Below the knee is by far the most common arrangement. The lower part of the leg was covered with knitted stockings.
Pantaloons were first introduced around 1800 and were ankle length. They were very close fitting to the leg — so much so that they were sometimes buttoned all the way down the leg. Some were made from a knitted fabric so they would hug the leg. Some styles had a loop that went under the foot, to help keep a smooth look to the pant leg.
Trousers were looser fitting than pantaloons, and worn by laborers and sailors. They usually ended at the ankle, and the closer fitting styles were apparently slit up the seam for a few inches above the ankle to allow room for the foot to get through the pant leg.
Trousers— Narrow fall with pockets. (Reproduction.)
Overalls were a military garment like a pantaloon, but with spats built in to cover the top of the shoe. They were generally buttoned from the foot to at least mid-calf, and often higher.
Apparently the buttoned front fly had been used in the early 1700's, but by the latter part of the century all breeches, pantaloons, trousers, and overalls used the narrow fall system of closure. The narrow fall was basically a horizontally hinged flap which was held closed by three buttons on the waistband. Broad fall trousers had a fall which went from hip to hip, and did not come into use until the mid-nineteenth century.
The fit of all four types of pants was the same above the knee. The pants were held by a waistband with three buttons in the front, and a lace or buckle in the back to adjust for fit. The fit for all styles was close in the front, and loose in the rear — the opposite of modern pants. The front was smooth, and the gathers were in the back, not the front, as in modern dress pant styles.
Prior to 1800, all styles were rather low-slung, resting on the hips for support. At the turn of the century, waistcoat styles shortened considerably, and this resulted in a gradual raising of the waistband so that the white shirt underneath would not show through. Ultimately these styles were no longer held up by the hips, and suspenders were introduced to hold up the pants, as well as to help keep the front line of the garment as smooth as possible.
Many garments had a pocket in the waistband just like a watch pocket on a vest. Large, deep pants pockets also existed. In Rural Pennsylvania Clothing there is an excellent series of photographs of one of the few pairs of breeches that still survive from the early 1800's. They are cotton, have two deep pockets, and are labeled '2 John Johnson 1812' (Gehret, 125). Other examples of pocketed breeches are also shown.
Trousers— Details of pockets and front fall. (Reproduction)
The book Revolution in Fashion (p. 77) has an excellent full color photograph of a pair of French late 18th century working class pantaloons. They are of white cotton, with a thin beige stripe which gives them the look of a wide-wale corduroy. They are of the narrow-fall variety, and have pockets which are identical to those on the Johnson breeches.
The pockets are not like modern styles. They have a large flap, which is buttoned at the waistband.
Not all pants had pockets so it is important to remember that both those who say they did exist, and those who say they did not exist are right!
In a handout entitled 'Voyager Clothing', provided by the interpretive staff at Old Fort William at Thunder Bay, Ontario, there is a description of 'Voyageur Trousers':
'Winterers in the North West hinterland often wore trousers of dressed leather made from the skins of animals hunted in the area. The scarcity of big game at Fort William, as well as the dictates of fashion, made imported textiles the common material for trouser at Fort William. Inventories show a wide range of cloth trousers made from such fabrics as Russia duck (a strong, untwilled, sail-like linen) corduroy, grey, blue or olive color cloth of coarse wool, and striped cottons similar to ticking. The front-fall, full seat, and lace back are features of trousers worn by voyageurs and other workmen of the period.'
Fort William re-creates the period 1803 to 1821. Incidentally, the 'Voyageur Trousers' do not have pockets.
It should be noted that wide-wale corduroy was more common than narrow-wale.
Tradesmen and laborers often wore leather breeches—as they were the most durable. During the Napoleonic wars, cavalrymen wore fine buckskin breeches that they would put on when wet, allowing them to dry to a skin-tight fit considered to be very sexy. (Cavalry men were noted for their dashing appearance. They had a jacket, called a pelisse, trimmed with fur, and dripping with silver and gold military lace. These jackets were too small to actually be worn. They would simply drape them over one shoulder, perch on street corners, and fell faint-hearted females at ranges of up to a hundred yards with a single, penetrating glance — or so the story goes...)
Revolution in Fashion (p. 94) has a color photograph of two pairs of fine buckskin breeches. One pair is tan, the other white. (One can't really tell whether or not they have pockets, but I suspect not.) Incidentally, this same photograph shows two frock coats from the period, one of which was a hunting jacket owned by the Duke of Wellington.
The general rule of thumb would appear to be this : if you are a dandy, then your pants should have a very close fit, and your pants should not have front pockets (to avoid unsightly bulges). You should stick to breeches and pantaloons, or, if you are a military type, breeches and overalls. If you are a more common Joe, then a looser fit (although not as loose as modern pants) is permissible. Trousers were popular, but 'old fogies' wore breeches right up until 1825 or so. Pockets are perfectly proper, the only issue is your sewing skill!
In my opinion, you will not be able to build a decent pair of breeches, pantaloons, trousers, etc. without resorting to a commercially available pattern. (I know, because I have done both!) You can not simply cut up an old pair of modern pants to use as a guide, as the cut was very different. The feel of the pants is also quite different, so if you make your own pattern, you won't know when the fit is 'right'.
I made my first pair by following an outline pattern in a book, and adjusting it using an old pair of modern pants that I cut up. In the end, I got something that I could wear, but the fit is terrible — more like a pair of sailor's slops than a good pair of trousers!
For my second attempt, I purchased a commercial pattern. I then made a model out of scrap material, and then attempted the real thing. It didn't fit. I took the model and the finished product to a tailor, where I learned how to extend patterns correctly, and how even ¼" difference in a pattern can make a huge difference in the fit of the final product. I then made another model, and then finally, I had a pair of trousers that (presumably) fit they way they are supposed to.
Incidentally, my next project was a tail coat. For that project I again bought a commercial pattern, then I made three complete models out of cheap cotton. I wore each of the models around for a while until I became used to the overall 'feel' of the garment. I was then able to choose which model had the best overall fit. From that point it was simple enough to work in adjustments to tailor the fit to what I think is a pretty good do-it-yourself job (although a tailor would still see much room for improvement!).
I would suggest that for pants, you should follow this same recipe. When you get to the part about making final adjustments to the pattern, don't hesitate to seek out some help from someone with tailoring experience — it will save you much grief in the end!
Oddly enough, my experiences with these more sophisticated garments has lead me to realize that calling this process 'sewing' is a misnomer. The reality is that such projects are made or broken on the cutting table — the actual sewing part takes up less than a quarter of the time required to complete the project!
For my trousers, I selected a Tailor's Guide pattern called 'Drop-Front Breeches or Trousers 1750 - 1820', from H & H Western Wear, 2510 Randolph Road, Cookville, TN 38501. See the Notices of Goods for Sale for a list of member suppliers. This pattern has pockets, and I used the finished product to illustrate this article. Northwest Journal Volume III, pp. 18-24 lists many additional suppliers of breeches patterns.
Gehret, Ellen J. Rural Pennsylvania Clothing. George Shumway, York Pennsylvania. 1976.
Gilgun, Beth. Tidings from the 18th Century. Rebel Publishing Co. Inc. 1993.
[Old Fort William], 'Voyageur Clothing' pamphlet.
Starobinski, Jean et al., Revolution in Fashion, European Clothing 1715 - 1815. The Kyoto Costume Institute. Abbeville Press, New York. 1989.
Wright, Merideth. Everyday Dress of Rural America, 1783-1800. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1990.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?